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Working with Jerks: A Manager’s Perspective

After almost 18 months of working from home, many employees are making their way back to the office. Most of us are facing new dynamics when we get there: staggered schedules; workspace sharing; and a continued component of virtual interactions. Unfortunately, one thing has remained constant through all the workplace changes we’ve experienced – jerks remain. We all have the occasional dust-up with a co-worker or we lose our cool in a meeting, but this article focuses on the workplace jerk, the mean colleague. Specifically, how do supervisors manage the employees who consistently exhibit belittling, condescending, and rude behavior?

The Costs of Disrespect

First, let’s talk about why it matters that we address consistently rude behavior at work. Allowing disrespectful behavior in the workplace comes with steep costs, both internal and external. Within the workplace, people who experience disrespect lose creativity and focus and ultimately are less productive at work. In one study, people who experienced belittling and berating behavior at work saw a reduction in productivity and creativity of up to 61%.[1] Specifically, employees lose time at work worrying about negative interactions they’ve had with the “meanie,” avoiding the individual, and spending less overall time at work. Even those who merely witnessed moments of incivility experienced a drop in productivity and creativity of up to 45%.[2] Additionally, being subjected to constant disrespectful behavior can impact employees’ physical health, emotional well-being, and even their relationships outside of work. Ultimately, if a problematic work environment goes unaddressed, employees may feel they have no choice but to leave the organization.

Screening for “Meanies”

One company leader believes that, when it comes to jerks in the workplace, the best offense is a good defense. Chieh Huang, CEO of Boxed, acknowledges that it’s important for candidates for employment to meet experience and education criteria.[3] Once those hurdles have been cleared, however, Huang meets with them for 15-30 minutes to administer the “a**hole” test. During the meeting, Huang asks candidates to rate their knowledge of technology on a scale of 1-10. Anyone who rates themselves a 9 or 10 gets an instant red flag.[4] According to Huang, “Folks who feel like they know everything are generally condescending to the people around them.”[5] The “a**hole” test is a potentially effective way to ensure that new employees not only possess the education, experience, and skills necessary to fill a role, but may also identify those who might be less inclined to have negative behavioral tendencies that could be disruptive to an organization’s culture and values.

Strategies to Deal with Disrespect in the Workplace

Even with our best efforts to hire respectful employees, inevitably a jerk will eke through the screening process. If you’re faced with the dilemma of dealing with the office jerk, below are some tips for managing disrespectful behavior in the workplace.

  • Intervene Early

Bad behavior gets exponentially worse if it is left to fester. We often tell organizations in EPS trainings, “What you permit, you PROMOTE.” So, once disrespectful behavior is identified, it needs to be addressed quickly.[6] Use your company policies and/or Code of Conduct as a guide and a tool. Most organizations have policies that prohibit disrespectful and harassing behavior. These policies often are stricter in prohibiting behavior that state or federal laws may not define as illegal. Have a conversation with the employee and let them know the specific behavior that is problematic, how it runs afoul of company policy, and how it can be rectified. Once you’ve had the conversation, document it, and retain the documentation in case you are faced with additional issues with the employee in the future. Also, if your current company policies do not define and prohibit disrespectful or harassing behavior commensurate with (if not beyond) what the law requires, seriously consider updating them to include such language.

  • Meet Incivility with Kindness

Managers must model the behavior they want to see from their employees. If you work to create a kind and respectful work environment, that behavior is contagious and will spread to the rest of the team. If, however, you have a bad actor in your group, resist the temptation to stoop to their level. As Brene’ Brown posited in her book “Dare to Lead,” “so many managers and leaders in business today are taking out their unhealed childhood trauma on their employees. In other words, a high-performing jerk had something go wrong along the way and, unfortunately, you and your organization are bearing the brunt of it.”[7] Maintaining civility in your interactions not only helps to deescalate a tense situation, it can improve the morale of the surrounding team members. As discussed above, the productivity of those who witness disrespectful behavior is affected, so it is critical to control your behavior and do whatever you can to diffuse the situation.

  • Provide Opportunities for Positive Interactions

The ideal workplace may be one where there is so much positive interaction among co-workers that there is simply no room for toxicity. After all, positive social relationships among employees are how work gets done.[8] Positive interactions at work are marked by trust, mutual regard, and active engagement.[9] Here are a few ways to promote positive social interactions at work – all increasingly important, and yet even more challenging to execute, in quasi-remote or hybrid working arrangements:

  • provide opportunities for collaborative social interaction at work, by creating shared workspaces and meeting spaces;
  • regularly schedule social gatherings that promote team-building (Who wouldn’t love a good axe-throwing or scavenger hunt work outing?); and
  • develop new or less-experienced talent on your team by creating a mentoring program.
  • Seek “Professional” Help

If your efforts as a leader of your team fail to stem the tide of disrespectful behavior, don’t be afraid to reach out for assistance. Bringing in an organization that specializes in training employees on respectful workplace behavior can have the two-fold effect of both correcting negative behaviors and supporting positive behavior. Training takes many forms. Group trainings that encourage participation and interaction among the participants can provide an effective platform for refreshing employees on acceptable behavior in the workplace and organization policies that support that behavior. Training can also be tailored for subgroups of employees, such as managers/supervisors or leaders in the workplace, who have a special role in modeling appropriate behavior. Finally, one-on-one trainings can be very effective in targeting and correcting problematic behavior of certain individuals, or providing guidance to an employee who has recently transitioned to a supervisory or leadership role.

  • Be Prepared to Make the Hard Decisions

At this point you already should have talked to the problematic employee about the need to correct negative behaviors. Maybe you have also provided one-on-one training to supply the employee a roadmap for improving those behaviors. But if the problems persist and morale is suffering across the team, the next step may be to separate the toxic employee from your organization. Once you make that decision, it’s important to make sure you can cite company policies and/or the Code of Conduct to back up your decision, as well as documentation of the problematic behavior and discussions you (or others) have had with the employee to address and attempt to correct the behavior. Finally, have a neutral individual, perhaps a Human Resources representative, vet the decision and be present for the conversation. This person may serve to document the discussion and act as a witness later if necessary.

Wrap Up

The actions outlined above are steps that any organization can take to discourage disrespectful workplace behavior, a/k/a the jerks, and foster positive employee interaction. Through creative and consistent practices that reduce the opportunities for bad behavior while promoting positive social interactions, healthy workplace relationships can be an outlet where individuals and the organization as a whole will thrive.


[1] Das, Abhimanyu, Do You Work with a Jerk? Here are 6 Things You Can Do, April 5, 2019,

[2] Id.

[3] Miller, Amanda, The 3 Questions This CEO Uses to Weed Out Jerks, Feb. 14, 2019,

[4] Id.

[5] Id.

[6] Estis, Ryan, How to Deal with Top-Performing Jerks, Jan. 27, 2020,

[7] Id.

[8] Houston, Elaine, B.Sc., The Importance of Positive Relationships in the Workplace, April 14, 2021,

[9] Id.